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Kant and Okin

I want to examine the question Susan Moller Okin raises in "Reason and Feeling in Thinking about Justice" of whether Kant made a fundamental error. In terms of Okin’s theory, “The love of parents for their children, coming to be reciprocated in turn by the child, is important in [John Rawls’] account of the development of a sense of self-worth.” (236) But what if a child is deprived of his parental love and fails to get it in any other form? We know the expected outcome is that the child will lack self-worth and moral orientation, but if this is inevitable, then the outlook for civilization is dim indeed. The alternative, that a child – whether male or female – deprived of parental love can nonetheless from individual choice acquire morality and act in a socially just way with other human beings – including their own subsequent family, implies a certain degree of validity to Kant’s reasoning about morality. Kant may certainly have been misogynistic in his personal views (Okin has some nice eye-opening quotes, such as “[Kant] says of women that their “philosophy is not to reason, but to sense” page 233), but this alone should not be enough to invalidate his approach of placing reason above feeling.

If reason is a valid method for determining right and wrong, and an individual whose life is deprived of all the benefits of feminine nurturing that Okin uses to point out what Kant overlooked, is nonetheless able to reason their way past their feelings toward moral action, then Kant’s emphasis on reason has some validity.

Even if Kant can be shown to have been in every way in error in his understanding of the role and place of feeling in human relationships, this still does not suddenly elevate feeling over reason as the source of moral virtue. Put another way, Kant does not have be wrong in his reasoning just because he held views that today we look down upon. We should consider the possibility that Kant reasoned correctly despite being misogynistic. Fundamentally, Okin and Kant come from two opposed approaches. Okin holds that Kant’s reasoning cannot be separated from Kant’s personal views, and that Kant’s logic, or its outcome, is necessarily influenced by his feelings (and opinions about women), while Kant maintains that reason only functions correctly separated from feeling. The two are thus quite far apart.

Okin, Susan Moller. "Reason and Feeling in Thinking about Justice." Ethics 99.2 (1989): 229-49.

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